What Every High School Student Needs to Know About College Recommendations

By Sam Rosensohn

Keep in mind that the teacher recommendations that accompany a student’s college applications can make or break a candidacy – that’s because 80 percent of the students who apply to any given school have the grades and SAT scores to get in.

So let’s take a look at how teachers evaluate students and how important their college recommendations are particularly if you’re applying to a selective school.

The Common Application, which is currently the application of choice for 346 colleges and universities, including Amherst, Columbia, Harvard, Northeastern, Princeton and Washington & Lee, calls for two teacher recommendations.

After noting how long the teacher has known you and in what context, the teacher is asked – What are the first words that come to your mind to describe this student? Teacher has one line for the answer.

The teacher is then asked to list the courses he or she has instructed the student, noting the year it was taught, and the level of course difficulty.

That done the teacher is asked, Please write whatever you think is important about this student, including a description of academic and personal characteristics, as demonstrated in your classroom. We welcome information that will help us to differentiate this student from others.

Freshmen, sophomores and juniors share more in class. Let your teachers see you at your best. Get to know your teachers better, take more initiative in your education, and things will improve in class and in turn so will your recommendations.

Juniors since you’re going to need two teacher recommendations, I suggest you line this up before the close of school in June. You could ask one to focus on personal characteristics and the other to focus on academic characteristics. If you don’t map it out, there’s always the possibility that both teachers will focus on the same characteristics.

After completing a written evaluation, the teacher will look at a grid (which you can see by going to www.commonapp.org) and compare you to the other students in your class and how you rate in the following 16 categories (not too long ago there were 11): Academic achievement, Intellectual promise,  Quality of writing, Creative thought, Productive classroom discussion, Respect accorded by faculty, Disciplined work habits, Maturity, Motivation, Leadership, Integrity, Reaction to setbacks, Concern for others, Self-confidence, Initiative, independence, and Overall.

Now here’s where it gets excruciatingly real. For each of those categories the teachers are asked to check one of the following boxes: Below Average, Average, Good, Very good, Excellent (top 10 percent), Outstanding (top 5 percent), and One of the Top Few Encountered in My Career.

The way ratings are set up on the application, admission officers don’t need to read the teacher essay – they simply have to look at the check marks and depending upon where they fall, you’re either in the pile for consideration or in the circular file.

Since a lukewarm recommendation is not going to help your candidacy, what’s a student to do? Find a good time this spring (not moments before the start of class next fall) to ask your teacher if he or she would write you a recommendation.

If the answer is yes, then advise how much you want to go to a particular school, and ask your teacher if he or she is comfortable supporting your candidacy. You will find that for the most part teachers will let you know when they can’t write a glowing recommendation.

Finally, send your teacher a thank you note as soon as she agrees to write your recommendation and enclose your resume, it can make a difference in how she views you.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com